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November 26, 2014

People's Literature: Nostalgia in the time of copyrights

PPH bookshop in Connaught Place, Delhi

PPH bookshop in Connaught Place, New Delhi

“We taught India to read,” proudly claims Rishav Kumar who manages the bookstore of People’s Publishing House in Connaught Place, Delhi. The bookstore is not entirely deserted, but the middle-aged Kumar who has been working here since his school days admits that there was a time when he would not have even a spare moment to sit down and talk to people as the shop would be inundated with readers and buyers. People’s Publishing House, or PPH as it is known among its readers, is one of the earliest publishers in India, at least of what is considered ‘secular and progressive literature’. Throughout the post-independence decades, they supplied books across India, on subjects ranging from politics and revolution, to science and technology, and from children’s literature to art and philosophy.

Established before partition by the undivided Communist Party of India, PPH brought communist literature to South Asia at a time when it was on the rise in much of the Third World. They moved from Lahore to Bombay and then to Delhi. Over the new few decades, the original writings of Marx, Lenin and other communist leaders, as well as literature on the communist movement, printed by Moscow’s Progress Publishers from 1940s, far removed from the age of Internet archiving, were made available to scores of enthusiastic readers- students, activists, and party members alike. Aside from this, Indians were brought closer to many masters of modern literature such as Maxim Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Mayakovsky, and Tolstoy. Tilak Raj, an accountant at the main office at Jhandewalan, Delhi, recalls, “A lot of people who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s still call us to ask where they can get our children’s literature,” referring to the colourful and beautifully illustrated books from the famous Raduga Publishers of Moscow, that spoke to children about the importance of being honest and upright through folk tales from Eastern Europe. There were also books from Mir Publishers whose technical books and titles of science and technology made easy, were equally popular.

PPH also had its own publications. Much of the early progressive books on Indian history and philosophy by eminent historians and thinkers, such as D.N. Jha, R.S. Sharma, Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar were first published by them. Indian literature was not far behind on their agenda; Premchand, for example, was translated into English for the non-Hindi readership. All the major titles from Moscow were translated into 14 Indian languages including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Marathi. Today however, PPH has retreated from its earlier glory.  Most people would give you puzzled looks if you were to mention PPH to them. What led to this decline?

A shelf-ful of Russian literature, at PPH

As its symbol, the main-office/warehouse in Jhandewalan is a well-stocked yet dusty treasure that was once the center of activity for them. Its employees are all well over 50 years, old workers from the Party – sweet, smiling and more than willing to open the doors of the rooms full of old prints and reprints to their loyal readers and comrades. The most obvious answer for the decline, according to them, is the fall of the Soviet Union. Tilak Raj informs me how the demise of the mighty state brought in its wake the gradual end of the publishing activity there. Progress, Mir and Raduga Publishers, which depended on the Soviet state entirely for funding shut down. Here in India, the PPH too depended on this supply from Moscow as its mainstay. The post-1991 period understandably signified a difficult time for them, much like the way the Left everywhere was forced to ask itself serious questions about its existence and direction. By 1995, the book supplies from Soviet Union dried up and PPH underwent a severe financial and existential crisis for more than a decade. Survival became difficult as the enterprise runs on a no-profit, no-loss basis. Much of PPH’s earnings to support printing and reprinting comes from the rent they earn from the building that also has their warehouse. Once this building was the centre of PPH’s publishing activity; there was an active press, called New Age; and a daily newspaper, Jan Yug. There were regular mobile exhibitions in vans, which went from college to college and street to street taking along the people’s literature across towns and cities. All of this ceased. Circumstances, finances – whatever might be the reason. They also complain about the decline in the culture of reading among the young people today.

Communist Party of India continues to be a shareholder today in the company. While they have resisted succumbing to commercialization, the neglect on their part is reflected in the dusty and moth-eaten piles of precious books lying in the warehouse, waiting for ways to get out there to potential readers across India. In the era of copyrights, high prices and monopolies ruling even the publishing sector, they carry on with the nominal and affordable rates to enable students and common people. Education and good books should not be the prerogative of the moneyed after all, which is what it has largely become today. Things are not as gloomy though. PPH continues with the reprints of old favourites, classic Marxist texts and literature from India, Europe and South America, at a good pace. Mishra ji, who manages the PPH bookshop in JNU, Delhi, which perhaps sees the busiest activity among all its outlets, points out that there has been a renewed interest in the original writings of Marx and Engels after the recent global financial crisis. People who were earlier not even remotely interested in Marxism now want to know how this old, bearded man predicted the periodic crises in capitalism a century and half ago.

A couple with their young kids, from Kota, Rajasthan, has come to the PPH outlet in Connaught place. They are looking for old titles in Everyday Maths and Science, as well as children’s literature that they have grown up with and want to pass on now to their kids and students they teach back home. “We wish these books were as easily available in all places as they were in our youth,” laments the mother. “We learnt much of our basic Science, about the plants, planets and human evolution, from them,” she adds. Then there are the devoted readers: Rakesh Ranjan, former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University and now a teacher of Economics at Delhi University recalls, “My first introduction to PPH was back in Patna as a school student, but that was because those science books were so cheap, particularly one by I. E. Irodov, Problems in General Physics. When I came to university and got increasingly drawn to left politics, I realized there was a great treasure lying there at PPH. I dived into it, and read voraciously, using my savings from a meager monthly allowance of 1000 rupees per month”. Rakesh would visit the office in Jhandewalan to find more Marx or Lenin or Tolstoy. “They were generous enough to let me sink in the huge stock and find whatever I wanted,” he adds, remembering the fond friendships he made with the PPH staff over the years.

Certainly, for every student of left politics, the education started with the familiar covers and titles of PPH. It still does for many young people, though far less in number now. The definite decline in interest in its books has not reduced the endearing quality that any PPH book stall gives to its avid readers.

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